I am guessing that you will see no real-time TV reports from the Tiananmen Square area today, and little or no photography. This is based on personal experience there last night, China time, which also leads to personal advice for anyone in Beijing thinking of going there today.
During my time in Beijing over the past year and a half, I’ve often seen the square itself totally closed off to visitors, as it is at the moment. There are always plenty of security forces around — soldiers in green uniforms, various kinds of police in blue uniforms, and “plainclothes” forces who are pretty easy to pick out, like strapping young men in buzz cuts all wearing similar-looking “leisure” clothes. But I have not seen before anything like the situation at the moment.
Yesterday, Wu’er Kaixi, a former student leader during the Tiananmen Square Protests, tried to turn himself in to Chinese authorities after twenty years in exile. He was detailed by immigration officials at the airport in China’s Macao territory.
The history of China as a nation is hard to nail down. As dynasties changed through the years, each new emperor brought a rewriting of the nation’s history to best fit their familiy or their own legacy. And the people went along or didn’t know better, being largely rural.
As a steeply traditional nation, even while under Communism China has found its historical roots hard to leave behind. Some argue that Confucianism and its hierarchical system ingrained in the Chinese people a mindset that Communism was able to adapt to and co-opt as Maoism – a distinctly different form of Communism than found in the Soviet Union or even Cuba.
History is malleable in Chinese tradition. “Barbarian” Manchu became “Chinese” when they took control of the country – something that not only allowed them to rule but gave the Han justification to claim Manchuria as Chinese when the Qing Dynasty came to an end. Tibet is part of China now, thus has always been part of China. The Chinese Communist Party was able to not only embody Mao but also hold up Sun Yat-Sen, a Democratic reformer, as a hero.
Historically China has been able to change its past to define its present.
It allows China to recognize the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement as a pivitol moment when Chinese stood up against foreign imperialsm in the wake of World War I. But now they take actions to ensure it doesn’t lead to another incident like the one twenty years ago. Part of those actions are to ignore Tiananmen.
It never happened.
China is able to forget Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward and the millions who lost their lives either through outright slaughter or starvation. They remove it from history books. They don’t discuss it. It never happened.
Tiananmen is the same. Twenty years ago China was still emerging from under the shadow of Mao. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were turning China from a Communist economy to a more Westernized one, but still with restrictions and certainly with none of the political reforms that a free market invites. Some within the CCP wanted farther changes. They were purged.
Deng Xiaoping himself had faced purging from the CCP twice. Deng was aLong Marcher who had fought with Mao to help bring the CCP to power. In the late 60s during Mao’s Cultural Revolution Deng was sent to work in a factory in the Jiangxi province but was brought back into power in 1974 at the urging of then Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou was a reformer, regularly running at odds to leaders within the CCP, including Mao himself. When Zhou passed away in 1976, public displays of mourning were brutally put down in the Tiananmen Incident. Deng would again be removed, put under house arrest. But with Mao’s death in 1976, Deng was able to solidify his backing within the CCP and rise once again within the party and China.
With Deng’s rise came economic reforms that pulled China out of the economic gutter and led to it becoming what it is today, an powerhouse on the world stage. Deng’s reforms were able to tap into the nation’s natural resources in ways Mao had never been able to. But with the loosening of economic restrictions came pushing from both sides.
Hardliners saw a weakening of the central authority of the CCP. Reformists saw an opportunity for political change in Beijing.
Deng proposed Four Modernizations: Agriculture, Industry, Technology, Defense. In 1978 Wei Jingsheng tacked The Fifth Modernization to a wall in Beijing calling for greater individual freedoms. Democracy Wall lasted a year before the CCP felt individual expression had gone too far in criticizing the Party.
But not everyone within party leadership was cracking down on demonstrations and individual expression. Hu Yaobang was another Long Marcher but also one who believed in Deng’s reforms. He was made Party Chairman in 1981 but was forced to resign in 1987 after being considered too tolerant of student demonstrations by leaders within the CCP. It would be his death on April 15, 1989 that would lead to Tiananmen.
Crowds gathered and the Party got nervous. Deng Xiaopeng, thought to be sympathetic to the student protesters, had his hand forced and on May 4th the CCP cracked down on demonstrators. The rest, as they say, is history.
But not in China.
The Chinese government viewed the Tiananmen Protest as anti-revolutionary and a threat to their power. While some attempts have been made to rehabilitate Hu’s image, at no point has the Party ever entertained reevaluating what happened at Tiananmen. Chinese youth are not taught what happened, it’s passed over in favor of lessons on economy and globalization.
Yet in this era of the Internet and access to information world wide in an instant, China is having a hard time rewriting its history as it used to. Now it is not just a simple matter of burning all old histories in the Forbidden City and writing new ones. Information is now in the hands of everyone, no matter how big the Great Firewall of China may get.
But does it matter?
Bao Tong worked for Zhou Ziyang, reform minded CCP General Secretary who was forced to resign in the wake of Tiananmen:
Mr. Bao believes that an official reassessment of Tiananmen is crucial for China’s long-term stability. “You have to say it clearly: It’s not a good system, it’s a bad system. It has to be stated that the people who were killed [on June 4] were good people, and they shouldn’t have been killed. . . . We must announce that Tiananmen was a criminal action. That soldiers, from now on and forever, cannot oppose the common people. This gun cannot be pointed at the people.” He holds his fingers up in the shape of a gun and takes aim at the coffee table.
So is there a potential for another student uprising? Mr. Bao doesn’t think so. Although today’s economic turmoil is much more painful for China than the inflation of 1988-89, he believes the threat to the government’s stability is much less.
He first cites China’s tight grip on political discourse today, compared to 1989: “At that time, people could say Mao Zedong was wrong. Today, they can’t say Deng Xiaoping was wrong.” Although Chinese citizens have more ways to communicate today — especially via the Internet — these technologies won’t necessarily lead to calls for change. “The spread of the Internet is a good thing, but it is also a bad thing. Because in the hands of the government, it becomes a tool for brainwashing.” He sees government meddling behind online flare-ups of antiforeign sentiment.
Mr. Bao thinks the real key to Beijing’s control over its citizenry, however, is economic leverage.
As long as the CCP provides for its people, or allows its people to provide for themselves, it is in good standing. Deng’s policies were ten years old in 1989 and China was still just emerging economically. Now it is the second largest economy in the world. Its people are arguably much better off now than they were twenty years ago, certainly compared to thirty years ago before Deng’s policies began.
The next protests China sees may not be political but economic. And they may be in the countrysides more than in the cities. Because it’s easy to be concerned about politics when you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. Rural China may be disproportionately impacted by a global recession. This is something the CCP can’t block by firewall or by rewriting their history books.
By hiding Tiananmen from the people the CCP can hope to avoid the tough questions behind the events that led to the massacre. But they feel they can not afford to allow protest and criticism for fear of losing control over the country.
“Every four minutes there is a protest with more than 100 people.” Mr. Bao cites a report that estimates China sees 100,000 protests per year, up from 80,000 three years ago.
Bao calls these “Little Tiananmens”. And they impress upon the people exatly what the government wants them to forget.
The only freedom they have is what the Chinese Communist Party allows them to have.
Tiananmen may have never happened in the eyes of the CCP. But every day, every four minutes they have another one, somewhere else. And the Chinese people see it, feel it, know it first hand.
The CCP is holding onto the idea that history can be written by those in power. But the people are starting to write their own histories and, with that, they are clamoring to have a hand in their own futures. And without reevaluation of Tiananmen and the policies and events that led to the massacre, the Chinese Communist Party may find itself written out of history.